During Paris Fashion Week, the rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, hosted a “secret” catwalk event where models wore T-shirts displaying the phrase “White Lives Matter.” Ye had planned on selling the shirts before eventually dropping off boxes filled with the tops at homeless encampments in Los Angeles, never officially releasing the design.
Now, anyone trying to sell a White Lives Matter shirt or use the phrase for monetary gain will be handed a cease-and-desist letter by two Black radio hosts who own the trademark.
Ramses Ja and Quinton Ward are the hosts of Civic Cipher, a radio show based in Phoenix. A listener of the show reached out to them and told the hosts that they had acquired the trademark to White Lives Matter but thought protection of the phrase was better left in the hands of Ja and Ward.
“The listener did not want to be associated with this in any way, but they recognize the importance of ownership,” Ja told NPR. “You can prevent bad things from happening by owning it. You can shape the outcomes.”
The listener, who wishes to remain anonymous, was listening to Civic Cipherwhich, as the hosts explain, dives deep into conversations regarding political representation, voter disenfranchisement, voter suppression and police brutality.
“We talk about all the things that need to be talked about, right?” I told NPR. “This person listens to our show and says, ‘You know, who would be a better decider for the future of this thing that is now owned by me? Would it be these gentlemen.’ And so that person reached out to us again, stipulated, ‘Hey, look, if anything ever happens in the future, monetarily, please, you know, donate half to these certain organizations.’ And we intend to do that if that day ever comes.”
After conversing with the listener, Ja and Ward took time to discuss what it would mean for them to be the two who would be holding this trademark. It’s a trademark that carries a lot of weight: The Anti-Defamation League notes that the phrase is a “racist response” to the Black Lives Matter movement. Additionally, white supremacist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, use the phrase.
“We both had to sit with that for a while because the optics surrounding something like this can get away from you,” Ward told NPR. “We have positioned ourselves in such a way to where if it overwhelms us, there are more things that we can do in the future. But at present, if we’re being asked to be the protectors, then we will do that. We will rise to that calling, and we will do our best to do right by everyone. You know, obviously, again, we feel oftentimes the greatest need is in the Black community, specifically with Black women. And so that’s where we focus a lot of our efforts and our energy. But we are brothers and sisters to all men and women on this planet.”
The trademark officially became theirs on Oct. 28, giving them sole ownership and the right to sue anyone who uses the phrase for monetary gain. Owning a phrase like White Lives Matter could result in critical feedback for the hosts about what they should or shouldn’t do with their ownership of the trademark.
“That was part of the scary thing about being assigned this trademark. Ramses and I walked 4 or 5 miles that day just kind of trying to wrap our heads around what just happened,” Ward told NPR. “And we understood that there was going to be some responsibility that came with that, some backlash, some people that don’t understand. But we’re equipped to have those conversations.”
The response that both radio hosts have received has been overwhelming, with many positive reactions to this news on social media. At the moment, neither of them has heard from representatives of Ye or anyone looking to buy the trademark.
“For us, it’s about giving people back a little bit of hope when they’re dealing with hopelessness, giving people a little bit of a silver lining,” said Ja.
“Every day, there’s a new headline with this one individual who’s very, very visible, establishing or bolstering a narrative that’s very harmful and allowing a certain base of this country to point to him and say, ‘Look, he feels that way, so it’s OK if I feel that way too, right?’ So for us to take a little bit of that back and give it to the people who are on the front lines and kind of at the bottom of that feels good.”
Both hosts understand that halting the sale of White Lives Matter clothing or items will not be easy. They are working with a lawyer and plan to send cease-and-desist letters to anyone who tries to monetarily gain from the sentence.
“If we feel like someone is profiting from, you know, the sale of any clothing, … our federally protected trademark, we can sue them and recover damages, and we can sue for copyright infringement, which allows that lawsuit to get a lot bigger,” Ja told NPR.
Both hosts said they understand that stopping bootleg sales across different countries or across the internet will not be an easy task. Unlike large companies, they don’t have full legal teams to stop the sale of bootleg merchandise.
“We’ve definitely had to consider [that] everything that goes into protecting a trademark is now, for better or worse — we’re in that space. So, we’ll see how it goes,” said Ja. “But for so far, it’s been the symbolism of it, and the impact that that has had has been very meaningful, especially to communities that have been very hurt… by one individual in particular saying some very hurtful things. So I want to take a moment while we’re here to acknowledge the pain that my brothers and sisters in the Jewish community have experienced in recent weeks.”
Owning the trademark is a responsibility that neither host takes lightly, and it’s one that they hope results in outcomes that are good and helpful to others.
“You know, a lot of people point to the organization Black Lives Matter when they’re trying to be, when they’re trying to scrutinize that movement. And they don’t realize that that term was born of a lot of pain, a lot of an entire community of people in this country feeling like they’ve had a foot on their neck, a knee on their neck, you know, under the thumb of an entire system for their entire existence. And all of these other — quote, unquote — Lives Matter were born just to oppose it, just to oppose Black Lives Matter, not to uplift those other communities, because they didn’t require it,” Ward told NPR.
“Now that our faces and our names are tied to this, there is a responsibility for the outcomes to be good. Like, we can’t hide. … That’s … part of the responsibility [and] we accept it. If there are any outcomes, especially financial outcomes, they cannot be to benefit us. So we can’t go buy a new car or go on vacation. They have to serve and build up these communities that have been hurt by the rhetoric that’s on the opposite side of Black Lives Matter,” Ward said.
Neither host knows what is in store for the future now that they own the phrase. They have thought about donating the trademark to an organization that they believe could be responsible and help protect it.
“We have no idea what comes next, but having our names and our faces tied to this now, the responsibility is on us for those outcomes to be positive and uplifting and for those headlines to be positive and uplifting, so the stories can stop being about divisiveness and hurt and pain and more about, you know, building and bridges and forgiveness and love and, you know, helping people that are traditionally underserved,” said Ward.
I see this as a moment to educate and learn how to approach an issue and handle it in a way other than anger or not getting involved. Instead of watching from the sidelines, both hosts now see this as a way to get involved and hopefully help causes they believe in.
“I do think that it’s a moment everyone can learn from. And I hope that … the outcome that we’ll see is a positive one,” Ja told NPR. “There’s more ways to fight back, to oppose. You know, it’s like we got to fight this fight with one hand tied behind our back and one shoe unlaced and, you know, that sort of thing. But, you know, every little bit helps. And I think that this story is inspirational. At least this is what I’m gathering from other folks. We were certainly inspired when it came to us.”